Back to school

It’s the beginning of September—families are pulling together the binders, backpacks and pencils their children will need to go back to school. At the same time, students with disabilities and their parents will be celebrating two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that will be incredibly helpful in advancing the rights of the disabled in the classroom.

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Ehlena Fry and her service doggie Wonder

The first case was decided by the Court last summer. Ehlena Fry was five years old and just starting kindergarten when she got her service dog Wonder.  Ehlena has cerebral palsy and her doctors suggested the service dog as a way to help her become more independent. Wonder is able to help open and close doors, pick up things and stabilize Ehlena so she could independently make transfers from chair to walker.

However, Ehlena’s school district refused the family’s request to use the dog in the school. When the parents sued, the district maintained it was an administrative issue—and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the decision for a unanimous court in the case of Fry v. Napoleon (MI) Community Schools, ruled that parents of a child denied the use of her service dog may sue that school district under provisions of the A.D.A. This is a great victory for the rights of people with disabilities to have service doggies help them live independent lives!

The Second case involves the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  passed in 1975 and guarantees students with disabilities the right of a “free appropriate public education.”  Of course, it is often a struggle to make sure the lofty words and ambitions of legislation are actually being put into practice throughout a system as decentralized and complex as American public schools.

The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District will go a long way to clarify just what an “appropriate” education means for students with disabilities.
Endrew F. is a student with autism and attention deficit disorder.  His parents, concerned that his annual individualized education plan didn’t seem to change from year to year, pulled him from public school and enrolled him in a private school.

The Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed with the parents that merely being enrolled in the public school and being given the minimum is not sufficient and IDEA demands more from school districts.  In his decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”



“Would you like a Coke with that accessibility?”

coke machine.jpg

Cases before the Supreme Court often result in widespread changes to our society. Issues such as school segregation, abortion and the right to bear arms have all been the subject of famous landmark decisions. But whether the case is well known or obscure, all Supreme Court decisions have one thing in common — they started because an actual person had a specific problem they wanted solved by the courts.

Such is the case of Magee v. Coca Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., currently pending before the Supreme Court. The case was brought because a thirsty blind man couldn’t independently use a vending machine to buy a Coke on a hot Louisiana day. The case will help determine how far the courts and the U.S. Department of Justice feel corporations must go to make retail vending equipment accessible to people with disabilities.

Emmett Magee is blind and lives in Metairie, Louisiana. On several occasions Mr. Magee found himself unable to use one of the glass front vending machines selling Coca Colas located in places such as his hospital and local bus station. The Coke machines do not offer any non-visual ways to either operate the machine or to ascertain the price. So, Mr. Magee sued Coca Cola, arguing that vending machines should be seen as public accommodations and hence, under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a recent friend of the court brief, stated its opinion that vending machines are not public accommodations, they are merely equipment located inside facilities that are the public accommodations. The D.O.J. further argued that it is not Coca Cola’s responsibility to make the vending machines accessible. The establishments where the machines are located are responsible for ensuring accessibility of products to customers and can meet this responsibility by having people available to assist customers with disabilities attempting to use the machines. The lower courts that have already heard this case both came to the same opinion.

This could be a troubling development for people with disabilities and the long term trend for technology to be made accessible. From curb cuts to smartphones to closed captioning, technology has become more inclusive for a wider range of people with disabilities. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, American businesses that might have balked at increased costs were required to develop and use technology that advanced the independent and accessible use of a wide range of equipment.

This case is also a look into how the D.O.J. under the Trump administration may differ in their interpretation of the A.D.A. and the requirements it places on the public accommodations covered under Title III of the law.

For example, in a very similar case to Magee decided in 2014, the U.S. Justice Department came to the exact opposite conclusion in a brief for a case involving the machines used to swipe credit and debit cards to make a purchase. In order to make a debit purchase, blind customers had to input a PIN number — and without tactile keyboards blind customers were unable to independently use the machines. As a result of this case, machines for swiping cards now come with tactile keyboards to allow for their independent use by customers with disabilities.

The U.S. Justice Department under the Trump administration seems committed to giving more leeway to businesses, including on acceptable accommodations for customers with disabilities facing inaccessible technologies used in everyday commerce. This could delay the progress in accessibility that people with disabilities have experienced since the passage of the A.D.A.

Memo: re the solar eclipse

Date: 8/21/17

To: All madmen, drummers, bummers, Indians in the summer, teenage diplomats, all-hot half-shots, fleshpot mascots, young Scotts with a slingshot, bloodshot forget-me-nots, brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preachers from the East, new-mown chaperones, fresh-sown moonstones, silicone sisters, manager’s misters, Go-Cart Mozarts, Early-Pearlies, hazards from Harvard, backyard bombadiers, dudes with a calling card, shooting stars from Zanzibar, avatars, boys who laugh too soon, kidnapped handicaps and mousetraps.

Remember, Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun. Don’t give me any of that nonsense about how that’s where the fun is! Do you wish you were blind? (although that’s another song entirely . . .)

“I’ll have an order of anxiety, with a side of existential panic.”

I’m not a potential criminal, but I can’t help feeling like the psycho killer in the song of the same name by the Talking Heads:

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

I’ve been hospitalized three separate times in the past month–once for a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in my lung) and twice for cellulitis–a bacterial infection in my leg. The infections were likely caused by a combination of my chronic lymphedema (swelling and inflammation caused by a badly damaged lymph system) and the procedure I had done for the embolism–which utilized a tube inserted into the leg to administer clot busting drugs.

Anyway, I can’t help but think the worst. My appointment with the hematologist to determine if I have a hereditary predisposition to clotting has led me to daydream about all the terrible diseases my body is harboring. After thinking about my symptoms, I self-diagnosed myself with one disease and I am STILL only partially reassured after some google research showed I have about a one in 250,000 chance (0.04%) of having that condition. (My medical degree is apparently from WebMD.)

So, breathe, let yourself get stronger, walk the dogs everyday and truly believe that every little thing’s going to be alright.

“As You Walk You Make Your Own Road”

Yeah, yeah–Happy Holidays etc. But, more importantly, just as when Public Enemy famously urged us to fight the power: “let’s get down to business/ mental self defense and fitness.”

Our first action must be to combat the direct and immediate threats that will start on January 3rd, 2017 when the new Congress is seated: repeal of Obamacare, block granting of Medicaid, privatization of Medicare, deportation of the undocumented, opposition to Trump department secretary appointments and new Supreme Court Justice, repeal of Dodd Frank and threats to the CFPB, defunding of Planned Parenthood, overturning of Roe v. Wade and the gutting of Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

There is much to do to, and all of it is important. The future of our nation surely hangs in the balance–the promise of the New Deal of the 1930’s, the dreams of the Great Society of the 1960’s and all the future goals of an American society striving for freedom, justice and equality for all are under direct attack. It may seem daunting, but as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote: “As you walk, you make your own road.”
All opponents of the Trump/Ryan GOP have to play defense on the most important safety net items NOW. If Ryan, Trump and the GOP are successful at, for instance, materially changing the entire structure of Medicare to privately managed accounts run through the financial services industry–rather than a stated public entitlement–that entitlement will never be brought back: not in our lifetimes, not in our children’s lifetimes, maybe never.
As if that isn’t enough of a project, there needs to be a second wave of activism focusing on the weaknesses of our political structure:
  • We need to roll back the GOP’s voter suppression programs and fight for automatic and universal registration for all–regardless of race, offender status and any other groups targeted for exclusion from suffrage.
  • We must make election day a national holiday and day off.
  • The Democrats must invest in a robust outreach and organizing operation geared toward young people and those red states where changing ethnic demographics can put a state into electoral play.
  • We must eliminate the Electoral College.
The overall political goals are threefold:
  • More Democratic wins in state legislatures in order to have the ability to redraw election districts after the 2020 Census, eliminating the kind of gerrymandering of U.S. Congressional districts that currently allows the R’s to receive fewer votes than the D’s, yet still control more seats.
  • Take back Democratic control of the U.S. Senate in 2018 in order to give us breathing room from the onslaught of right-wing Trump/Ryan legislation.
  • Defeat Cheeto Nazi in 2020.


A good place to start your preparations is to read and reflect upon the report pulled together by former Congressional staffers entitled: Indivisible: A Practical Guide For Resisting The Trump Agenda. As the report’s authors state in the introduction:

Donald Trump is the biggest popular vote loser in history to ever call himself President- Elect. In spite of the fact that he has no mandate, he will attempt to use his congressional majority to reshape America in his own racist, authoritarian, and corrupt image. If progressives are going to stop this, we must stand indivisibly opposed to Trump and the members of Congress who would do his bidding. Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win.